In September 1707, Sir Cloudesley Shovell was returning home from Gilbraltar, leading his Royal Navy flotilla in his flagship, HMS Association. He had begun his naval career as a lowly cabin boy but had risen to the lofty title of Admiral of the Fleet. His advancement was achieved by hard work and competence, but he lacked one essential skill for marine navigation, and he wasn’t alone.
No-one had yet determined how to calculate Longitude; that is, your position on an east-west axis. Sir Cloudesley knew he was in the entrance of the English Channel but he didn’t know which side. The French or the English side. At around 22:00 on October 22, 1707, HMS Association, together with HMS Eagle, HMS Romney and HMS Firebrand, ploughed on through the darkness straight into the Western Rocks of the Isles of Scilly. The Association sank within two minutes. Some 1,450 men were lost across the four ships, with only 24 survivors between them, none of them on the Association. It remains one of the worst disasters in British maritime history.
Surrounded by treacherous rocks, the Isles of Scilly have one of the highest concentrations of wrecks in the U.K. It is doubtful if any collection of rocks in the whole of the British Isles has a worse reputation.
Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s body was washed up on St. Mary’s, the largest island in the Scillies, and seven miles from the wreck site. Rumours abound about what happened to his body, and whether Sir Cloudesley’s ring was stolen by locals – it turned up at auction later. A sad death for a naval hero.
However, unlike most shipwrecks and lost sailors, Sir Cloudesley Shovell will go down in history as the inspiration for two major events in nautical history.
The first was that the British parliament introduced the Longitude Act of 1714 as a direct result of the disaster. The act offered a reward – the Longitude Prize – of £20,000 to whoever could produce a solution that was “practicable and useful at sea”. Sir Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley (of comet fame) set their minds to the task, but the problem was eventually solved by a carpenter-turned-clockmaker from Yorkshire.
It took John Harrison 25 years and four attempts, but in 1759 he invented a marine chronometer that allowed a ship to calculate its longitude by comparing the difference in local time at sea with the time in Greenwich. His prize-winning pocket watch, known as H4, overcame the challenging conditions on board ships at sea – the issues of motion and variation in temperature – and offered the stability required.
The second event happened two hundred and fifty years later, when the wreck of HMS Association was relocated in 1963. News of the discovery spread rapidly and, according to the Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer, Richard Larn, who led the search, “Anybody with a diving cylinder and a bedroll turned up. There was nothing to stop anybody from looting the wreck of the Association, and that’s exactly what happened. Coins were so plentiful that people were paying for pints in the pub with them.”
No official record was ever made of what was hauled out of the sea, and within months the findings were dispersed across the globe. A silver plate inscribed with Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s coat of arms was sold to Rochester Town Hall, where the admiral had served as local MP; artefacts from the wreck now decorate a pub in Penzance; and fragments of the ship’s bell were auctioned off to private collectors in the United States.
“What happened on the Association was a national disgrace,” said Larn, who was moved to petition his local MP to consider a bill to protect historic wrecks. The Protection of Wrecks Act was passed in 1973, which has since safeguarded wrecks from unauthorised interference.
Down among the yellow-horned poppies on Porth Hellick, seven miles from the site of the wreck, a memorial marks the spot where the body of Sir Cloudesley Shovell body was “flung on the shore and buried with others in the sands”. He had been washed up here with his two stepsons, his captain and his pet greyhound, Mumper.
And out past the cove, beyond the island of St Mary’s, the ocean continues to rush and rage around the Western Rocks.